Friday, May 17, 2013

A strong (climate) case for nuclear energy

On the Web site for the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, a new Science Brief released along with a new published paper:

Coal and gas are far more harmful than nuclear power

In this, the authors make the case that direct deaths caused by nuclear energy are far less than those caused by fossil fuel burning. 

I am certain that this paper will be critiqued, criticized, examined, and revisited.  But it says some things that are self-evidently true, such as:

"Likewise, we calculated that nuclear power prevented an average of 64 gigatonnes of CO2-equivalent (GtCO2-eq) net GHG emissions globally between 1971-2009 (see Fig. 3). This is about 15 times more emissions than it caused. It is equivalent to the past 35 years of CO2 emissions from coal burning in the U.S. or 17 years in China (ref. 3) — i.e., historical nuclear energy production has prevented the building of hundreds of large coal-fired power plants."   (emphasis added - and coal-fired power plants cause direct health problems, regardless of the climate effects)
And for those impressed with the rise of fracking and the concomitant rise of U.S. natural gas production, there's this eye-opener:

"Our findings also have important implications for large-scale "fuel switching" to natural gas from coal or from nuclear. Although natural gas burning emits less fatal pollutants and GHGs than coal burning, it is far deadlier than nuclear power, causing about 40 times more deaths per unit electric energy produced (ref. 2)."

Since the co-author of this piece is climate skeptic target James Hansen, it's not surprising that it comes down hard on GHG-emitting power plants.  But what's surprising to me is the way that they approach it - not in terms of economic cost, but in terms of human cost.  The alternative is that "underpowered" Third World countries could do better health-wise with more robust economies built on increased energy production.  Since they may be spiting themselves with fossil fuel energy production, the alternatives are primarily solar and nuclear -- and until we get a lot of big flow batteries online, nuclear is the only proven alternative.

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